As far as immigrant success stories go, Husam Ahmad’s reads like something that is all too familiar, but impressive nonetheless.
Ahmad, who is the chairman and CEO of engineering and architecture firm HAKS, was once a struggling foreigner with limited options and a disproportionate number of obstacles.
Born in India, he landed in New York City in pursuit of a Masters Degree in Civil Engineering from City College of New York.
He spent part of the ‘80s working on news-stands and folding newspapers.
Since then, he has progressed towards creating and maintaining one of the city’s top consulting firms.
HAKS, which is celebrating its 25th year, has worked on many major projects, including the restoration of critical services after Hurricane Sandy, providing construction management services for the $400 million reconstruction of Gilboa Dam in the Catskills Mountains and the inspection of the $360 million construction of the Gowanus Expressway.
Ahmad originally planned to move back to India after studying in the US. He wanted to work for the country’s Department of Telecommunications, something that was inspired by his father, who himself worked in the public sector.
His plans changed during his two-year tenure in CCNY. He said that there was strong demand for civil engineers then, so he decided to cultivate a career in what would become his adopted country. While deciding on his path was simple, surviving in New York City was more complex.
“It was tough. When I came here, I didn’t have a green card, so I couldn’t work. So I did odd jobs just to help myself,” he said.
The high point of his resume at the time was a job that involved assembling copies of the Sunday edition of the New York Times.
“That’s what got me by. Now Iʼve made it. I’m very proud that I did it and that it worked out,” he said.
Ahmad’s validity as a foreign inhabitant of New York City came through an H-1 visa, which provided green cards to people with “specialty occupations,” as laid out in the requirements set by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
He started his career in New York City as an employee of the Department of Transportation, the volatility of which guided him to his current standing.
“I worked for the government and the salary is not that great in this country, unfortunately. It’s not like in Asia, where the salary is actually equal to doctors or lawyers and you can easily afford to have a good life. We didn’t have enough money and we couldn’t live in the expensive buildings that were going up,” he said.
Eventually, poverty became a drag and Ahmad decided to build something himself.
“My wife left her job, so there was pressure on me to do better because I didn’t want to go through that without money. So I started my own company and we tried to work better,” he said.
That decision has not just been beneficial to the people in his immediate orbit, but also to the city that serves as the backdrop for his work.
Recently, Ahmad gained some publicity for donating $50,000 to a library in Queens. He said that the library helped him when he was working on his masters because it gave him a place to do research.
“A lot of my time was spent there, focusing on my homework and trying to find better books,” he said. Even 25 years since he bet on himself, Ahmad is still surprised by the results of his move. “It’s surprising to me that we survived for 25 years. It makes me very proud and I know I can see, looking towards the next 25 years, how it can be.
“I know we’re going to be so established and well-known. Not only for our reputation, (but also) the kind of work we do,” he said.
The next 25 years may hinge on the company’s current projects. HAKS, which also provides construction management, land surveying and material testing services, was recently involved in high-profile projects such as Fulton Center in Lower Manhattan, the Governors Island Ventilation Building and the St. George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island.
The next phase for HAKS is expansion. The company, which currently has 650 employees in 14 offices (including a new location in Houston, Texas), is chasing new clients in new places.
According to Ahmad, they will be opening offices in Los Angeles and in Bahrain in the Middle East.